Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Politics in the North: Initial Impressions

Formal word is in, the Orange Tory blog is back in business. I am permitted to continue this project with the blessing of my employers, and certain reasonable restrictions.

Normally in my day-to-day encounters I do not talk to people about politics. It is my experience that it is wise to avoid discussing politics unless specifically invited to. Indeed, knowing me I could talk politics all day, so it is best if I keep silent until invited to express an opinion. However, when I do have conversations with the people I meet I try to get a sense of the political community I live in. I have come up with a few broad generalizations. I have no idea if it is supported by evidence, but these are some observations.

Like elsewhere in Canada, people up here are not particularly interested in formal party politics. I do not hear much mention of Prime Minister Harper (CPC – Calgary Southwest, AB) or Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) or Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC). When news of the day is brought up people seem quite well informed. People tend to read the newspapers in the area and perhaps are better informed than peers elsewhere. I wonder if this is product of living in small towns.

Another observation I have made is that, while people may not be interested in formal politics, there is a great deal of passion about their communities. Citizens may not be fully aware that they are having “political” conversations, but they are definitely sharing ideas about policy at the local, territorial and federal level. Given the strong role of government in daily life here it makes sense that the communities are more aware of how their lives are impacted. Residents care about the fate of their hamlets/towns/cities. I wonder if this is an example of political cultures of small towns. Boosterism and pride are definite contributors to this. I’ve seen those factors in my hometown, but they seem much more widespread. Perhaps the fact that a place like Fort Smith and Hay River are so distant they must develop distinct identities and roles.

As for territorial politics. I must admit that I have a hard time understanding this aspect of my new home. In case you are unaware the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories is non-partisan. That means nineteen MLAs are elected without party affiliation. However, much like city politics back in Ontario that does not mean that people don’t understand their party affiliation. There are a lot of factions within the territory that do not easily break into right- and left-wing. In principle the government works by consensus, and the Premier has to build a cabinet from a small group of people that may not agree on every issue. Personality matters a lot here, but it definitely seems like politicians would have a hard time getting a big head here. They mingle in their communities with residents, and cannot hide from the public as other public officials do. They are also well-known, so they aren’t anonymous.

The trouble is that learning about politics here is a matter of learning the back story of individuals and political alliances, as opposed to a simple breakdown of ideology. It is definitely admirable, but makes it a bit daunting to tackle at first. Despite what I said about citizen interest, voter turnout here is worse than back in Ontario. In 2011 only 47% of residents voted for their MLA.

There are a lot of interesting and pressing issues here in the Northwest Territories that I hope to expand on in the future, but I will save that for a later post.

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